Leadership and Management lessons from the Mahabharata War – Part 1

Posted by Venu Payyanur     Category: Mahabharata and Management


Mahabharata war lasted 18 days and had 18 divisions of army to start with. Kauravas had 11 Akshouhini (divisions) and 7 with the Pandavas. One Akshouhini consists of 21870 chariots, 21870 Elephants, 65610 horses and 109350 soldiers. That means the Kauravas had 240570 chariots, 240570 Elephants, 721710 horses and 1202850 soldiers against 153090 chariots, 153090 Elephants, 459270 horses and 765450 soldiers of Pandavas. You add the number of support staff needed to take care of all these animals and soldiers in terms of food, medicine, housekeeping, etc, the total number of persons who participated in the war is close to sixty lakh. Kings with their armies, horses, chariots and elephants had come from far away kingdoms of Greece in the West and Cambodia in the East. At the end of 18 days only 10 survived. Kripa, Kritavarma and Ashvatthama from the Kaurava side and the five Pandavas, Krishna and Satyaki from the Pandava side. However Pandavas won the war and captured their lost kingdom.

There are many lessons one can learn from this most devastating war. Here is some of the questions one need to answer to get a better understanding.

1.  Krishna was the GOD and had the power to stop the war and also made a last minute attempt in this regard. Yet he could not stop the war. Why?

2.  Kauravas had bigger, almost 50% more, army and other resources, yet they lost the war. Why?

3.  Kaurava generals, such as Bhishma, Drona, Duryodhana, Karna, Salya, etc were unbeatable in the war, yet they all died. How and why?

4.  Pandavas were not in power and that too living in exile for 13 years prior to the war. Yet they managed to organize a very large army in a very short time. How?

5.  There were more than 20 lakh soldiers with 40 lakh support staff along with 12 lakh horses, 4 lakh elephants and 4 lakh chariots participating in the war coming from faraway places like Greece and Cambodia. All assembled in one place on time to start the war. Considering the fact that this war took place almost 5000 years ago with no modern communication and transportation facilities, can anybody guess how such a humongous task was achieved by the then war managers?

6.  War is a very serious game, either you win or die! The final beneficiaries of the war were only the Kauravas or the Pandavas. Yet there were many kings and their generals along with their army participated in this war. How could the war managers keep them motivated, even when they see people are dying around them every moment?

Details of the Organization.

Managing such a large army with Infantry, Cavalry, Elephants and Chariots is not an easy task. Imagine the problems we had couple of years back during one Kumbh mela wherein many hundreds of people died due to stampede. It was close to one million persons who assembled at that time. During Kurukshetra war, there were more than sixty lakh persons including twenty lakh Infantry, four lakh chariots and four lakh elephants along with close to twelve lakh horses all assembled into one place and restless to engage in war. If not managed properly, half the participants will die of stampede arising out of chaos and confusion. Here comes the great organizational technique employed by the generals almost 5000 years ago, which is followed even today by all the countries.   Each soldier had a clear reporting structure and the entire army was organized in such a way that every one of them knew exactly what to do and whose orders to follow.

Pandavas – Pandavas had 7 Akshouhini and Yudhishthira duly appointed the following persons in command of his seven divisions. They were Drupada, Virata, Dhrishtadyumna, the king Dhrishtaketu, the prince Shikhandi, Chekitana and Bhima. And Dhrishtadyumna who had sprung from the blazing (sacrificial) fire for the destruction of Drona was appointed as the Commander in Chief. And Dhananjaya was made the leader of all those high-souled leaders. And Krishna endued with great intelligence was chosen as the guide of Arjuna and the driver of his Chariot.’

Kauravas – Kauravas had 11 divisions and the following were the Generals for each of the divisions. Kripa, Drona, Salya, Jayadratha, Sudakshina, Kritavarman, Aswatthaman, Karna, Bhurisravas, Sakuni, and the mighty Vahlika. Duryodhana appointed the Grandsire Bhishma as the Commander in Chief of the Kaurava army.

There were many Rathi, Athirathi and Maharathi in both the armies. A Maharathi is a warrior capable of fighting 60,000 warriors simultaneously; circumspect in his mastery of all forms of weapons and combat skills. And an Atirathi is a warrior capable of contending with 10,000 warriors simultaneously. In the Kaurava army the following were Athirathis and Maharathis. Shalya, Somadatta, Bhurishravas, Bhagadatta, Jayadratha, Kritavarma were Athirathis and  Bhishma, Drona, Karna, Ashvatthama, Shrutyudha, Duryodhana were Maharathis. Among the Pandavas Ghatotkatcha, Satyaki and Yuyutsu were Athirathis and Arjuna, Bhima, Abhimanyu, Nakul, Sahadev, Yudhistra, Dristadyumna, Dhrupad and Viraata were all Maharathis.

Sometimes, the details of number of soldiers and generals participated in the war looks highly exaggerated and exclamatory. Even today the total strength of Indian army is about eleven lakhs, when our country population is more than 100 crores. It is very difficult to believe that 5000 years ago, one can organize such a large army, even though there were participants from as far as Greece and Cambodia. It is estimated that the world population during 3000 BC is approximately 14 millions, that includes approximately 50% women and if not more 20% of the persons below 20 years of age. This essentially means that all eligible male population from across the world, irrespective of their profession, participated in the war!!

It is very interesting to analyze the organizational structure from the current day perspective. For the Pandavas, Yudhishthira was the CEO ably supported by a Board of Directors consisting of all his brothers. Each one of them was masters in one specific area. Krishna is like Non Executive Chairman, who does not participate in the day to day activities of the company but acts like an Advisor. Dhristadyumna was the COO who had many Generals reporting to him. 

Where as in the Kaurava side, Duryodhana was the CEO and Dhritarashtra the Chairman with no executive powers. (His orders were frequently disobeyed by the CEO).  His COO or Commander in Chief was Bhishma and he too had outstanding Generals reporting to him. Duryodhana did not constitute a Board of Directors but had a Coterie advising him consisting of Sakuni, Karna and Dussasana.

Even today we know that if the organization is not managed by an efficient Board of Directors who had clear sense of purpose and direction, is bound to failure. That exactly has happened to the Kaurava army and kingdom. In spite of having great Generals and larger army, they lost the war. Why? That is subject for another article.

3 Responses to “Leadership and Management lessons from the Mahabharata War – Part 1”

  1. vv Says:

    Very interesting, with a fairly simple message for corporates,
    Each person is groomed for the position he takes up in the army (customised training -they did not have the concept of off the rack),
    Each person is expected to operate at his own level (foot soldier fights a foot soldier)
    The organisation structure is so crisp and clear in terms of authority, responsibility and communication pattern that it offers scope for accountability,team building and leadership.
    They have a clearly laid down succession policy- and it worked to their advantage, each time a new leader came in, it was without any confusion.
    And a message for the professionals: their role is to support the realisation of the vision of the leader- irrespective of what their personal opinion is about the vision.

  2. skp Says:

    superb article…true inspiration for an india centric management style..

  3. Malesh Patro Says:

    I really thankful, this message gave me immense pleasure, it symbolise how sound our Indian Management System even before 5000 years ago. One thing is clear that GOD Himself did all these.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.